Truffle, .ak.a. Tuber Magnatum Pico. And I’m not talking about the chocolate one. I’m talking about the one that smell like methane, that looks like a potato with bubonic plague, that only dogs and pigs can find.
I’m no big expert on truffles but I grew up around them, literally. I was raised in Florence but I spent most weekends and summer of my Italian life in the small town of Balconevisi, a tiny “borgo” (about 100 souls and shrinking) in the still virgin heart of Tuscany where my parents are from and where I still have a home. The area is one of the few around Italy (and the world) where truffles are found, and I mean the prestigious white truffles, one of the most expensive and rarest food on the planet. The price is dictated by supply, size and quality (no, not demand…truffles are ALWAYS in demand).
White truffles are usually eaten just shaven raw on simple pasta or risotto with butter or cream and perhaps some parmesan, also on eggs; reason is to not have other ingredients in the way of its unique flavor. But, believe it or not, I'd put truffle on everything but coffee & milk! If you get away from the fact that truffles are outrageously expensive and need to be eaten closest to its natural state, you’ll then discover the versatility of this unique food. If you use truffle like any other ingredients or I should say condiment or spice, you'll find out how flexible this “fungus” can be. I like it shaven on top of a strong pasta bolognese, in a salad, on seafood and I also made “gelato di crema” with it. Just keep it away from heavy heat and prolonged cooking to properly maintain the flavor potency. The freshest the better and please, no freezer!
To me the most fascinating side of truffles is how they are found: you need either a dog or a pig. You can train a dog; good luck really training a pig! Good dog: medium size healthy mutt, preferably from a truffle hunting lineage; he’ll roam the woods, smell the truffle, go to the spot, dig until he finds it and stop for the owner to finish digging it out. Bad dog: large, pure bred; usually gets lost in the woods, maybe chasing game; …IF… he finds truffles he’ll destroy them while digging them out, and ultimately eat them. I’ll now tell you about “Nerino”, my childhood neighbor Aurelio’s “blind” truffle dog. Yes, Nerino was blind; he bumped into parked cars, trees, corners and things, but to balance this major handicap his sense of smell was out of the ordinary making him, together with his mellow disposition, one of the best truffle dogs around.
Now let’s talk about the man truffle “hunter”. He doesn’t make a living out of it, it’s his hobby! That doesn’t mean he doesn’t take his hobby seriously, on the contrary! The stereotype: secluded and introverted, older farmer type, in love with his dog, or more often dogs. He lives by a Mafia-like code of “Omertà” (silence); a ”don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of thing: another big draw to the truffle world! Don’t ask the truffle hunter WHERE he found them, he won’t tell you. Everything is down played not to reveal important info like place, time and condition. If he’ll show you what he found is going to be the crumbs and not the big catch, unless he scored seriously BIG!! Truffles season in Tuscany goes from mid to late September until January with a little spurt of low quality “Marzolino” (from Marzo-Italian for March) during rainy March. Truffles follow the same weather rules of mushrooms as they are in reality, well, mushrooms! Enough for now, I could go on and on about this topic but I’ll get back to it soon.